On the Beauty of Tinkering
What is tinkering? Trying things out. Not knowing what will happen. Not knowing you’ll arrive at the “solution” today, if ever.
Recently I bought an AeroPress so that I can make a less sucky cup of coffee. Watching the documentary, AeroPress Movie, I paused at this one moment. This frame shows various prototypes for the coffeemaker, designed by Alan Adler. In total, he made 35 prototypes before producing the final design.
The final product looks like this:
The early ones varied in size and mechanisms. One prototype had a bike pump on top. Another had a squeeze bulb pump. One had a bigger base, which allows the coffee to filter through faster. Adler also showed the machine that allowed him to drill holes into the filter basket. He found that making the holes wider enabled the coffee to drip faster, which made it less bitter.
Adler based his prototypes on one hypothesis: if you put ground coffee and water in a container and apply high pressure force downwards, you can lessen the amount of time the coffee spends in water. Which makes for a less bitter, better tasting cup of joe. According to Adler, it took three years before sales took off around 2008.
Many of us like to think that there is one right way to brew coffee. But AeroPress users are different. They like to play with recipes, maybe because the device itself runs against the grain of coffeehouse aesthetics. It was in this spirit that the World AeroPress Championship that began in 2006, casually in a cafe in Norway. The championship has grown into a festival for tinkering with coffee.
Don Norman said in The Design of Everyday Things:
If designers and researchers do not sometimes fail, it is a sign that they are not trying hard enough — they are not thinking the great creative thoughts that will provide breakthroughs in how we do things. It is possible to avoid failure, to always be safe. But that is also the route to a dull, uninteresting life.
The story of the AeroPress is more than coffee. It’s more than just a kitchen gadget. It teaches us that making the effort to tinker is just as, if not even more important than coming up with the founding insight.
Tinkering is about being open to possibilities. Showing curiosity for what-ifs. Embracing ideas for lighting up, then going dark in the mind. And trusting the process even if the result is not guaranteed.